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|The 1849 cholera outbreak at Tarbert Plantation|
SURVIVORS FELT 'WORN DOWN, HEART-SICK, MELANCHOLY AND GLOOMY'
Along the 31st parellel in southern Wilkinson County below Fort Adams at the Mississippi-Louisiana border, a visitor stepped off a steamer at the Tarbert Plantation on the Mississippi River in April 1849.
"When we landed at the plantation," he said, "all was quiet as a graveyard." Slaves greeted the man "with quiet and sad voices."
On the porch of the plantation home, the visitor found a curious scene -- a doctor "surrounded with tables of bottles of medicine" frantically tending to a number of patients. The doctor "had three large dishes each of Calomel, Camphor and Capsicum and was dishing out of each with a spoon."
Soon the visitor was among the sick. In a letter to a friend, he said "it would astonish you to hear the quantity (of medicine) in ten days, we have consumed. Some 12 or 15 debilitated cases were lying in their blankets around the galleries of the house, so as to get aid, if needed, at a moment's warning."
The mood of the plantation resembled that of an Edgar Allan Poe short story.
Said the Tarbert Plantation visitor: "The wretched quarter dogs kept up all night a melancholy howling and have done so nightly; the atmosphere is heavy...It is impossible to eat; we keep our strength up with brandy, burnt in spices; it is a good preventive to disease, keeps the stomach warm and the brandy does not affect the head."
What had gripped the plantation and others along the Mississippi River was the cholera. In 1846 a widespread epidemic had stricken Europe and in 1848, the disease entered the United States through the port of New Orleans. Soon the epidemic spread up the Mississippi River valley and extended westward across the continent to California.
The first cases in New Orleans, according to historian William Dunbar Jenkins, occurred in December 1848. Over the next six weeks, 3,000 people died in the city.
Along the Mississippi at Natchez in 1849, flatboats, appearing to be empty, drifted onshore. Onboard dead bodies were discovered, all victims of cholera.
In the spring of that year, the outbreak took a westwardly direction, moving across Concordia and Catahoula parishes, following the rivers and traveling the Red into Texas. The U.S. 8th Infantry was marching at this time through Texas to San Antonio. By the time the regiment reached its destination, 139 men out of 400, including the colonel, died of cholera.
At the outbreak in south Louisiana, Riley said the Minor estate lost 200 black men, women and children, 75 died on the Bibbs plantation in the Lafourche region, 54 on Bishop Polk's farm. Many whites died at home and aboard steamboats as the vessels ascended the Mississippi and her tributaries.
At Dr. Duncan's plantation on Stack Island, located on the Mississippi near Lake Providence, more than 133 slaves died from the disease. An outcrop of the human toll was an economic one.
With a sick and dying workforce, there was no labor to tend the cotton crop, resulting in a loss of an estimated 3,500 bales on Duncan's Stack Island acreage.
"Wherever the disease occurred," said Riley, "the loss of a great part of the crop was the consequence."
Flooding in both 1849 and 1850 added to the great misery and a sharp feeling of fear and doom spread throughout the river country. For the settlers, the rising waters in Catahoula and Concordia and word of the spread of cholera sent many into despair, bringing on deep psychological torment for many.
A DREADED & DEADLY DISEASE
"The Tarbert Plantation," wrote Riley, "in Wilkinson County, situated upon the 31st degree north latitude, upon the Mississippi River, was visited the last week of March. This place had a high front, but back in the swamp, and extending north and south, was a great sheet of water; there had also just been cleared up about two hundred acres of land, in part of which the fallen timber was yet lying.
"In many places water was under the brush and logs. There were also a large number of decaying cane mattresses in the fields near the 'quarters,' all of which, no doubt, generated an impure air which gave nidus (nest) to the poison of cholera. The steamboats which took cord wood at the landing soon brought the disease to the place, and before the close of March there were decided cases among the Negroes."
Cholera, we know today, is transmitted through contaminated food and water aided by poor sanitary conditions. This is a dreadful disease, caused by the ingestion of a Vibrio cholerae bacterium. It's characterized by acute watery diarrhea and can be deadly, causing severe dehydration and kidney failure.
Wrote Riley about the sufferers of the 1849 epidemic.
"The patient was first seized with an uneasy feeling about the pit of the stomach, cramps in limbs and headache; he would immediately seek seclusion. In fifteen to twenty minutes, he became collapsed, cold as ice, pulseless and dying. In this state remedies were of little avail, for the patient after lingering a few days died of typhoid fever from excessive debility."
Antibiotics and intravenous fluids are used to treat the disease today. Back in 1849, the primary treatment was established by Dr. Samuel A. Cartwright, who once lived in Natchez. His method was described by Riley as such:
"Twenty grains of calomel, 10 grains of camphor and 10 grains of red pepper. These were rubbed together into a powder. A dose was given with every discharge. If taken at the starting point of the attack, three doses would generally stop the discharges, using at the same time hot mustard foot bath, hot bricks to feet, large plasters of mustard over the abdomen and on the thighs and legs, and rubbing for the cramp; if serious passages stopped and the patient slept and was quiet for eight to ten hours, he generally got up. From then on he was safe and only required brandy in suitable quantity to keep up strength, when recovery was gradual. Numbers, however, remained for a long time in a typhoid condition after getting through. In collapse, if anything would do good, it was calomel."
One patient, said Riley, was a "stout, athletic man" who was "apparently dying, cold as ice, pulseless and speechless." The man was given calomel in "100 grain doses" and "in half an hour he jumped up and was walking about..."
Doctors believed that "the great aim of treatment was to bring on sweating. This effected, the internal hemorrhage at once stopped. It would not do to wait on calomel to act on the liver, as this took four to six hours, and the patient might die in two or three hours."
FIRST CHOLERA CASES IN 1833
In the first cholera outbreak recorded in this region was in 1833. Riley said the owner of the Tarbert plantation at that time moved the slaves from their cabins on the river to the "high buffs back of the plantation upon the outbreak of cholera among them, and there did not occur another case." Only three men died, all infected at the first sign of the disease while all were living on the river bank.
But because the 1849 outbreak came on so rapidly, Riley said "no camps or sheds" were in "readiness at the bluffs....In making sheds or camps it was important that there should not be too many crowded together, and above all, that they should not sleep upon the bare grounds. Bunks to sleep upon were erected in their camps two or three feet off the ground, and if a flooring of boards was used they had a layer of sleepers under them to elevate them from the earth. This was Dr. Cartwright's plan."
Good, clean food was also necessary, according to the doctor. Riley said bread "made out of sweated or weevil-eaten corn was a prolific cause of malignancy in the disease; pork put up with inferior salt, or where the meat had been killed a good while before packing and salting, as was often the case in the West, was a fruitful cause of malignancy in the disease..."
Riley also notes: "It is a well ascertained fact that upon every plantation where the cholera was malignant that the drinking water was bad."
According to Rae's "Observations on Cholera," 19th Century physicians were coming to the conclusion that the disease was "contagious" moreso than not and "dependent on some telluric or atmospheric influence in its development...It advances along the great lines of communications that exist between different towns or countries, along the tracks of trade and the highways of commerce and overspreads a country more or less quickly, just in proportion to the facilities of intercourse existing between respective towns."
Soon the disease spread up the Red, Black, Tensas, Little and Ouachita rivers in Louisiana. Doctors -- and there were more in Catahoula and Concordia parishes in those days than most of us would have imagined -- found themselves traveling from plantation to plantation, farm to farm, house to house, in attempts to treat this scourge.
As the flood waters rose in this region in 1849, the outbreak of cholera almost caused a panic.
At the Tarbert Plantation, the visitor who had arrived at the place at the height of the disease's impact, was now in the depths of depression.
"My wife and self are perfectly well," he said, "but as you may suppose, we are all worn down, a good deal heart-sick, melancholy and gloomy."
(Next week: The cholera outbreak in Concordia and Catahoula parishes.)
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